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Candid Cameras: Three New Documentaries

By David Denby
March 6, 2006

Like rival gladiators whose pride won’t let them ignore a taunt, two Newark pols are about to go at it again. Just a couple of weeks ago, Cory Booker, a thirty-six-year-old lawyer and former city councilman, kicked off his second campaign for mayor of Newark. The current mayor, Sharpe James, who is seventy and has held the office since 1986, hasn’t yet announced whether he will run again, though, having accumulated a campaign chest of two million dollars, James is unlikely to retire from the scene with a polite thank-you note to his backers. If he does run, the race will reunite the men in a sequel to their acrimonious 2002 battle, a campaign that has been captured in the extraordinary Oscar-nominated documentary “Street Fight.”

Both men are black, both are Democrats (Republicans don’t much figure in Newark’s politics, and elections are nonpartisan), and it’s safe to say that they detest each other. The casting gods, who occasionally attend to real life, have, in this case, done their job extremely well. First, the challenger, Cory Booker: young, tall, athletic; civil-rights-activist parents; attended Stanford, Yale Law School, and Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. And then the old pro, Sharpe James: stocky, up-from-the-ghetto bruiser; the essence of a machine politician; an operator who sometimes delivers a skyscraper or a sports arena to Newark’s downtown “renaissance.” Booker, who is a bachelor and lives in a public-housing apartment, is strenuously sincere in his manner, and a little full of himself. James—who drives a Rolls and lives high—flirts, dances, and menaces his way through a campaign. One is a moralist who expects to be judged by the sternest criteria; the other is a canny mover who tells people that he has the juice, and the human understanding, to give them what they want.

In brief, Marshall Curry, the young director of “Street Fight,” has hit the documentary jackpot: the movie will become the inescapable referent for media coverage of the new campaign. And rightly so. Back in 2002, Curry took a small, lightweight digital camera into Booker’s campaign headquarters and into the streets for rallies, picnics, impromptu playground arguments, and much else in the feverish political life of Newark. The movie, which begins a few months before the election and concludes after voting day, is conventional in form. What has fascinated African-American commentators, however, is the way the 2002 race became a testing ground for the political weight of “blackness.” Sharpe James, in his youth, struggled as a black man to make his way in politics, yet he ran a racist campaign against Cory Booker. James is dark-skinned, Booker light, and James, in a variety of ways, implied that Booker wasn’t really black enough—and that he was Jewish, too, even though Booker is Baptist. “He went to Stanford, and he’s Jewish,” James said on the “Today” show, as if one fact inevitably followed from the other, a statement that stands out for its absurdity as well as for the brazenness of its intended smear. From the evidence of this and other scenes in the movie, James hits below the belt. When Curry attends James’s rallies, he gets hassled and manhandled by thugs in the police department who figure, correctly, that he is a Booker supporter. In the middle of the fracas, he holds the camera at his waist and keeps it running, as angry faces loom over him. James’s people, in their dealing with the filmmaker, reveal a good deal about their customary way of doing business.

Documentary filmmaking has come alive in recent years, and one reason is that the new digital equipment makes the physical part of filmmaking a lot easier. Like similar shifts to lighter equipment in the past, digital also creates, willy-nilly, a new aesthetic and a new relation of the audience to the spectacle. The invention, in the nineteen-twenties, of the Bell & Howell six-pound, handheld camera made it possible in the Second World War for combat photographers to throw themselves into battle alongside infantrymen. In the early sixties, the development of lightweight 16-mm. cameras with magazines holding four hundred feet of film allowed filmmakers to enter into volatile situations and continue shooting for ten minutes at a time. The heart of cinéma vérité, or “direct cinema,” was the existential self-creation of the filmmaker as he responded to the life unfolding around him. Filmmakers like Curry have taken this strategy a step further. He recorded the sound himself, and didn’t have lights or a crew. His little Sony PD-150 must have looked like a toy. The one-man filmmaker has passed from amateur to professional.

There are other good reasons for the documentary explosion. The commercial networks may have given up on documentaries, but public- and cable-television stations both finance and exhibit nonfiction films. And, as in the sixties, the political atmosphere is ripe for film journalism: public life is awash in scoundrels, liars, and deluded ideologues; all over the world, cultural conflict is playing out on the streets. The adventure of filmmaking has become irresistible again.

Another young director, Rachel Boynton, has also made a campaign film—“Our Brand Is Crisis,” which chronicles what happened a few years ago when some of President Clinton’s former consultants—James Carville, Stan Greenberg, and Jeremy Rosner—attempted to get Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, or Goni, as everyone calls him, back into office in Bolivia. Goni, a successful businessman who grew up in the United States, had been President of the country from 1993 to 1997, and had instituted a center-left program of privatization combined with social security and national health care. (He left office because Bolivian Presidents cannot serve consecutive terms.) When he ran again, in 2002, he hired the Clinton gang to apply the advanced technology of campaigning—polls, focus groups, advertising, branding—in a country that was sliding into populist and nationalist outrage over his practice of selling shares in Bolivian enterprises to foreign investors. As throngs of campesinos gathered in the streets, the Americans managed to get their man elected in a crowded field, but with only twenty-two per cent of the vote, and he resigned after a year. The movie ends with the exiled Goni back in America, sitting alone, staring at the Washington Monument in chagrin.

Like Curry, Boynton follows the campaign from beginning to end. But she also cuts in rueful interviews with the principals which she filmed afterward, so we get reflections on the disaster as we watch it unfold. Goni, it turns out, was a wealthy industrialist unable or unwilling to make a connection with an enraged people. But that’s only part of the problem. The Clintonites are caught in a painful bind. They may be right in their belief that Goni’s brand of capitalism-plus-benefits is the best way for Bolivia to climb out of poverty, but, for all their intelligence and sensitivity, they used campaign methods that, in a poor country in turmoil, were pathetically beside the point. Among other things, “Our Brand Is Crisis” is about the failure of good intentions—a potent American theme at the moment. As the movie suggests, this failure, born of American arrogance, embraces liberals as well as neocons, though the liberals, to their credit, do occasionally take responsibility for their mistakes. In a long, unhappy interview, Jeremy Rosner, pondering the futility of his actions in Bolivia, looks like an animal eating its young.

Something’s getting swallowed in Lake Victoria, too. Everything, in fact. The Nile perch, a huge exotic fish that was introduced there in a misbegotten experiment in the nineteen-sixties, has become a predator that has eliminated more than two hundred other species, and has turned a mixed economy that flourished around the lake into a voracious mono-economy. In “Darwin’s Nightmare,” another Oscar-nominated documentary, the Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper settled into the lakefront town of Mwanza, Tanzania, one of those anomalous, raffishly sinister Conradian places which dot the earth. There’s a big European market for the perch, which draws people from the countryside to work at the lake, but catching the fish is so dangerous that many young men die, and many others end up as servants or prostitutes. Every day, crews from a Russian cargo company fly hundreds of tons of perch fillets out of Mwanza, but the workers are so poorly paid that they can’t afford to eat any—they’re left with the head and bones. Yet, if Sauper is fired up by anti-globalist conviction, his instincts as an artist and as a man rule out any kind of rhetoric or cheapness. “Darwin’s Nightmare” is a fully realized poetic vision. The enormous Ilyushin cargo planes cast strange shadows on the water as they fly in and out; the town, which has been devastated by aids, is an incoherent gathering place of vulnerable fishermen, drunken pilots, prostitutes longing to get out, and orphaned children getting stoned on the streets at night. The dolorousness of the scene is overpowering, but so is the beauty of the faces and the landscape, and Sauper, moving in close, establishes an unusual intimacy with his subjects. The men, women, and children get a chance to explain their own roles in an inexorable process in which nearly everyone, sooner or later, becomes a victim. 

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